If there’s yet one more thing, like it or not, that the Great Pandemic of 2020-2021 has taught many of us, it is that the central tenet of modern society, to work in order to earn money in order to exist, has some seriously missing parts. How this extrapolates to the central premises of business in general and Architecture in particular, is that we may have the effect (existence) and cause (work) ass backwards. If all we did from the beginning of adulthood to its end was to exist, there are more elegant ways to accomplish that with far less effort–be a rock, for example, or perhaps a yeast. Our beautiful San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery prides itself on its mother dough, still thriving at age 162. I’m probably not alone in hoping to live so long, but earning my daily bread by being bread is not my first loave.
O.k. no more bad puns from this point forward.
Architecture touts itself as a profession, not unlike Medicine or Law, which requires rigorous education and training in order to provide a baseline of professional competence that protects the public welfare. Making it somewhat schizophrenic, a second key aspect is that it is also seen as an art, which isn’t about protecting the public welfare so much as it is, like the best public art, about uplifting the human spirit. Jekyll and Hyde’s third and deceptively dangerous cousin, and perhaps the one most in conflict with the first two, is that it is a business. Like that yeast, it needs to survive and thrive as an entity in order to keep breathing and rise another day (couldn’t resist).
Some time after the Roman Empire began, but maybe not unrelated to its fall, the business aspect of architecture became, for some, a corrupting influence. How the noble goals of protecting the public welfare and uplifting the human spirit became something to do to make a Denarius is where that society clearly went astray. I would argue we are at that same crossroads today. Not only at the potential end of an empire, but mired in the corrupting influence of extreme self-servingness. An extreme which has emboldened enterprises to strive to become monopolistic and then capitalize on that monopoly, not for society’s betterment, but for the business itself, i.e., to become as large as possible to make as much money as possible for it’s own unapologetic sake.
With all business, architecture loses its way when wrapped up in the Fear Of Missing Out. Becoming a Fortune 500 company is a great goal if one is in the business of making widgets. Becoming one by filling our public spaces with widgets? Not so great. If buildings can be as short-lived as a biodegradable fast-food wrapper, I am fine with the business proposition of low quality, fast and cheap. Unfortunately, the Architecture of Bad Intentions fills our cities like a kind of dumb-ass blight. Quick to empty out at the whiff of a recession or staying full and dilapidated in exchange for low rents, buildings literally are American cities. In context with extreme poverty, homelessness, addiction, cycles of abuse, and other societal dysfunctions, it’s an excellent recipe for Hell on Earth. As a chef, this is a dubious honor. Unlike Emperor Nero, we have no violin, but we can count our nickels and dimes, while Rome burns, instead.
Circling back to the beginning of this discussion, how is it that we have the cause and effect of existence backwards? Doesn’t one need to work in order to make money in order to exist? Simply put, no. Much explanation is in order. How many readers woke up this morning? I would venture a guess it’s almost 100%. If you didn’t wake up this morning, my condolences. So, safe to say, for this day, you exist and this is a starting point, not really an end goal. Step two, what to do? This is a huge philosophical question, but let me offer one answer that is pretty universal–do what makes you happy. This article is too brief to provide many suggestions on this step, but if you look for reasons to be grateful and are fortunate enough to find them, that’s all you need, at least for this day. Step three, ask what to do today that will inform what you would like to do tomorrow and the days thereafter. This, of course, is the million dollar question. Not everyone believes in a soul and I would swear some people don’t have one, but if you do, ask it what it wants. I will bet you $1,000,000 it wants your life to have meaning. Keep repeating these simple steps everyday, day by day, and try to live in the now instead of that pessimistic and fearful future. Pretty soon, you will have yourself a meaningful life. Or you will run out of money and starve first. Your soul may provide you with some reassurance in this regard. The power of your soul, unleashed, will move mountains. The power of you just making a buck, will…make a buck.
This day, this time, I would encourage you to answer your soul with a resounding, “Yes, I’ll create meaning for my life and live from that basis.” If you are an architect, thank God for all us building dwellers that there’s a glimmer of hope for Rome, or Byzantium, or whatever the mysterious future brings. This is the key to creating value and value is the one real sustenance that is both filling and fulfilling. Even better than freshly baked sourdough on a crisp San Francisco morning.